Like Christmas, it comes but once a year, but oh my! We all excitedly anticipate it, the anniversary of that return to the season we get to shout from the top of our lungs “this is me”! Pride. As the U.S. descends into division, out musician Brian Kennedy, who sang for peace in Northern Ireland, delivers a timely message for Pride.
Pride is often a very personal and profound experience for most. Our first Pride is often the moment of our rebirth—only this time we arrive in the true likeness of nobody other than ourselves. Many of us are fortunate to have come out or transitioned with love and support gushing from our close ones, as we exorcise whatever make-believe version of ourselves we have mimed for the entirety of our living years until the new, excited, energetic, and PROUD person we had always hoped to be.
For others, well, it is sadly not such an easy transition. There are many stories of teens, and indeed mature adults, being forced out! Through no choice of their own their deepest secret, and biggest anxiety-laden hidden self is callously thrown onto a lit stage, to an audience hungry for blood. Families, ripping skin with cruel words of abomination and sin, crude, sleazy and dehumanizing accusations each landing a blow like the stones of biblical times with every excruciating thud, removing another layer and bringing on the premature death of the life not ready to be open to the ridicule it now must endure.
We must never forget that Pride is first, and foremost a protest. Whilst we may have perfected a way to make it palatable for our heterosexual counterparts and peers, it is nonetheless a moment to bring attention to the wrongs we have suffered in the past, the wrongs we suffer now, and a demand for better treatment in the future—our own future, and the futures of all around the world.
For a brief period, I regret we became complacent. We began to see our rights being delivered as we had demanded. Then, sadly, the world turned. A Trump administration in the U.S., a Tory government in the UK taking direction and indeed seeking approval from the likes of Nigel Farage, Vladimir Putin, and other dastardly ‘leaders’ changed the status quo. Suddenly, the idea of seeking equality for all became something to be ashamed of. We now see around the world a new wave of hatred, shameless discrimination.
So, this Pride I took a moment to spend time chatting with a man whose music became the soundtrack for peace in Northern Ireland, and who has sung the words to many a moment in my life. A soundtrack of the fears and hopes in equal measure that drove and limited me as I blindly wandered through my future.
Brian Kennedy is a remarkable individual with a story that transcends any that could have been imagined, even in the minds of the wildest fantasies of dreamers in a blood-stained, and bloodthirsty Northern Ireland.
Growing up on the Falls Road, West Belfast, an area synonymous with ‘the troubles (The Falls is best described in those days as the epicenter of Irish republicanism), the boys and men championed and made heroes for their willingness to lay down their fears, and for some their lives, to take up arms against the foreign occupier, the ‘British state.’
On the other side of the divide, with literally a few metres between them, dwelled their opposites. A sworn enemy of people, who like their republican counterparts were literally armed and ready to kill and die for ‘the cause.’ This mindset, that war, those deaths, and them stories ran throughout the whole country. Every road a vein, every house a clot of blood identified by the colors in which it ran. Orange for the loyal sons and daughters of Ulster, and green for the brave rebels of Ireland.
It almost seems poetic, an epic story worthy of cinematic fantasy. Having lived it, I can confidently tell you it was anything but that. A living and never-ending nightmare, where everyone in it moved with each step, not knowing if another would be afforded to them. Where physical barricades blocked streets, wind-torn flags savagely marking out territories, children dirty faced and bewildered as another bomb scare moved them from their beds to a safe house, or street. Daily news littered with untimely deaths and announcements of yet another family with an empty space at their table.
“Estrangement was the safe bet for me” …
For Brian, living in the heart of that life was violent,
“It was violent both inside the home, and outside” Brian said. “I later chose estrangement, estrangement was the safe bet for me, I am in touch with one of my brothers, and my other brother who recently passed with cancer, I made contact with him before he passed, but that is all I keep in touch with.”
I noticed how he has perfected, calling out his younger days in a matter-of-fact way, like he might be talking about anything other than the formative years of his being. However, in a closer look in the smallest fraction of a second there is a twitch in the corner of an eye busily preventing itself from seeing too far back.
There is a confident and gregarious outer Brian. He is devilish in his communications, he undoubtably likes to shock with his frank and often controversial sharing of experiences, thoughts, and opinions. Though, in contrast a delicate sensitivity that might fear and simultaneously crave affection.
However, like most people of his talent and success, there is evidence of his having learned to capitalise on his vulnerability, which in turn he uses to convince himself he is at peace with it. There appears to be a strong arm ready to push away, even self-sabotage, and what an armchair psychologist such as me, might read as a need to be held.
I could not help but think as we spoke, you need a hug!! I do not mean a luvvy darling quick squeeze, awkward pat on the back, and air kiss. I mean a purposeful embrace, a lingering and imperturbable hug, which remains longer than it was invited to, and disarms the recipient in its duration. He no doubt has many hugs to give, and I know from our mutual contacts that he is loved dearly by all in his circle. I wonder though, if the hug he truly craves can only be given by the arms from which he has been forced to turn away, or those who have left their living years amongst us.
Twelve years senior to my ‘forty-something,’ Brian is cute, childlike, precocious and everything I absolutely adore in a kindred spirit. I listened in awe as the man who I as a young gay man definitely crushed on from afar. His thick dark hair, his eyes soft but piercing in another welcome contradiction, his voice of angelic qualities, his music a story of mine and our lives and an understanding of our inner thoughts.
It is not rare I suppose for a musician of his esteem to hold all of these qualities, but I have no hesitation in saying that it is not so much the talents that he possesses that sets him apart from others but rather his overflowing abundance of them.
We covered many things in our chat, and I was brought back to my first Belfast Pride. Mid-1990s, talk of peace and ceasefires, the air a little lighter for the lessened presence of burnt-out cars, bombed buildings and bullet sprayed bodies. The hatred toned down, whilst the likes of Tony Blair, President Bill Clinton, Gerry Adams, Martin Mc Guinness, David Trimble, and even eventually the loudest of them all, Ian Paisley, brought about an end to ‘the troubles’ of Northern Ireland.
However, there was another story that remains untold. The ‘gay scene,’ as it was known then. The community completely united, be they gay, bi, trans, or other, it mattered not — so long as you could buy your round at the bar.
Brian, and his music a mascot, and theme tune for the exciting days to come. New lives that promised, health, wealth, and happiness for all. The ALL of course, meaning the Catholics and the Protestants, or as they might have been referred to colloquially the ‘fenians’ and the ‘orangies.’ Nowhere in there was there a mention of the ‘gays,’ or the ‘bi’s,’ or the ‘trans,’ or the ‘others’. We were to remain as always, underground and at best tolerated after 9pm in the cover of darkness. Heaven forbids a child, gentleman, or lady should clap eyes on us in God’s daylight. Existing quietly beneath the drama, trauma and solutions now being peddled.
I recall, as I plucked up the courage to join the first march, a committee of my peers considering me cute enough to be an icon, the first ‘Ms Belfast Pride,’ I giggled to myself, as I was placed atop the double decker bus. My outfit shamelessly provocative, my denim short-short shorts, my cut-off top, my sand colored workman style boots, and my hair with that same nineties’ gay man AND lesbian haircut, as recognizable as a Vidal Sassoon bob: short crop top, back and sides, with a longer fringe (bangs) at the front gelled upwards – if you are struggling to picture it Google the cartoon character Tin Tin and you will instantly recognize it.
We set off, through the city centre of a busy Belfast, its streets heaving with Saturday shoppers on a mission to fetch the week’s groceries, a decent bit of meat for the Sunday dinner, and a nosey around the sale rails of the numerous affordable fashion retailers lining the narrow roads and streets.
My memories of that day compete with each other. I immediately smile in the nostalgia, then my brow furrows as I recall the insults hurled at us. Each carefully planned with such depth and disgust that it almost felt like warm phlegm from their red faces and wide-open mouths of hatred landed: “Faggots,” “pedophiles,” and other such aspersions not suitable for print.
There were of course some cheers, and waves. However, mostly from the din the noise that cut-through the loudest was, the shrills of forced laughter. A patronizing, deeply disturbing laugh, filled with intent to insult and mortify. People laughing at us, at me, like we were jesters ordered to entertain them with our lowered level of lives, the great unwashed paraded to permit the others that usually bore the title an opportunity to feel superior to their otherwise shallow and unfulfilled existences. Belfast united that day, irrespective of the colors they had pinned to the mast. Today they stood shoulder to shoulder in utter arrogance and vitriol as they jeered us through the city.
However, the warmth that I recall was the much stronger army. The few hundred (at most) of us, all there as family. Each of us ready to fight for and soothe one another. The indestructible comradeship as we all no matter the fear within defiantly stood tall in pride!
The day that followed passed much like a wedding. Music, drinks, dancing, new couples formed, and old couples further committed as together we celebrated our special moment. Then taxis ferried us to the afterparties of which I shall uphold the sworn secrecy of “what goes on tour stays on tour.”
Brian shared with Queer Forty how he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. I could almost smell and feel the crisp Belfast night air as he described the evening. The decision was made, and he plucked up the courage to head-off on a mission to Carpenters bar, the only venue in the ‘other’ part of town, which to this day has cobbled streets. Although it now unrecognizable as it sells at a premium, was then an area dimly lit and known for ladies (and gents) of the night amongst other things. “Taking my life in my hands” he described his expedition of travelling down the Falls Road through the hurdles of the locals he knew, and the “Mods and the skinheads.” The turnstiles at the bottom of his road, designed to slow down and identify anyone daring to pass through them, past the armed police, and soldiers positioned on the streets, guns ready to fire at any perceived enemy, the perception presumed by the lowest bar of assessment.
He recalled loitering on the streets, under the beady glare of the magnificent St. Annes Cathedral, a place of worship in which, only momentarily prior he regularly attended to sing the gospels and songs of praise.
A kind lady saw him awkwardly waiting for the courage to walk through those doors. She invited him to join them and escorted him to his arrival in Nirvana! A border of sorts had been crossed, it made from thick wood and glass permitted him entry to the land he had hoped existed: a bar room filled with people just like him! Boys who liked boys, men who liked men, girls, who liked girls, women who liked women, and an array of other beings just being their own beautiful selves. He, like many before him, and the others that follow, was hooked to the freedom of authenticity.
Brian went on to talk about when he got his music career break in London. “I remember people spitting at me on the tube. We were in their eye’s terrorists,” he candidly recalled. “I remember when I cut my first CD, I was able to show them, that, that is what I do,” he said referring to the customs officials that would search and interrogate him each time he passed through an airport terminal.
His memory triggered one for me, when I first arrived in England a fresh and curious 18-year-old. I was used to back home having to surrender to security guards at the entrance to shops. The guards, who would quickly determine that I was not indeed a terrorist and my little shopping bags of bargain basement fashions were simply garments not incendiary devices designed to crumble the building and all within.
I blush as I see the scene of my arriving at a store in Salisbury and offering myself up to be searched and the chap at the door looking at me quizzingly, perplexed as to what I was doing. There in that moment the confusion, the embarrassment, I realised that my life was entirely conditioned to survive in and be ready for war at all times. A sad moment actually, how did we allow it to happen? Was it all really for ‘the cause’?
Brian, in recent years has faced down more adversity. He was hit with cancer. I doubt there is any preference as to which cancer one might be inflicted with but, there is a further sadness to Brian’s as it left him with no choice other than to now live with a colostomy bag, and urostomy bag too.
Appearing on Nolan Live circa March 2019, I remember as he shared his story, the trials of his cancer, and the bags. His leather jacket, his sheer and sequin shirt, his trousers which he proceeded to open — to show off the new permanent vessels attached to his lower regions.
He was brave facing his trauma, leaning on his cheeky candidness to mask his fears and sadness. And if I am truly honest, I did not get the feeling that the interview deserved that level of access to his life. It is a show I have appeared on once or twice; I know the speed at which it moves, and I know the sensationalism it feeds off to survive.
I watched the footage again, as I sat down to draft this article. It seems obvious to me that his performance and his reality were at juxtaposition with one and other, and if he had been my artist or loved one at that time, I would have done my level best to stop him from doing it. I would have encouraged him to preserve that piece of him for himself and share it only carefully with those that come with a genuine heart.
However, I have no doubt that Brian would not have hesitated in telling me where to go with my concern, and into the spotlight he would have strutted. For him, the show must go on. A steeliness, he explains, having been learned through his estrangement from his family, the troubled community he grew up in, and having watched as a young man was shot dead in front of him.
That would be the usual place for this kind of article to end, however, for Brian of course not! In many ways it has only just begun. Another direct hit on his health was to land with a bang! A cardiac arrest and a quadruple bypass. Once more, he found himself in God’s waiting room. Once more, he had to dig deep and drum up that perfected persona of determination. He did, and I am pleased to say he is now healthy, strong, fabulous, and ready to perform his way through the days that come. He grinned as he told me “My diary is opening again and the bookings are coming in, I am recording a new album, and I am happy to be contacted to perform for anyone that can afford me.”
I am a privileged man, I am in the enviable position of meeting my idols, and contrary to the widely-held belief they are mostly not disappointing at all!
Meeting Brian has been a magic moment for me. I shall treasure the memory and no doubt watch the video of our chat many times. I give thanks to him for his authenticity and generous sharing with me, I have hope for him that he will find family in whatever context that offers the unconditional love we all presume and demand from our loved ones, and I shall reserve one of those hugs described above for when we meet in person for that promised drink, in Stoke on Trent, Belfast or wherever.
Please show your support by streaming and downloading his music, by following him on social media, and if he is appearing near you, by purchasing a ticket for his events. You never know, I might see you there! Mine is a gin and tonic if we do.
Whatever you do this Pride, do it with authenticity, steal the moment to be unapologetically you, and feel the love not from others but from yourself, as you give yourself permission to be all that you are.